72. GRAPE VARIETIES – Number 24: Gamay
"In wine quality terms, the Gamay ... is perhaps the Sauvignon Blanc of red grape varieties." So wrote Jancis Robinson in her book about grape varieties, Vines, Grapes & Wines. I completely agree. At its best it provides easy-drinking, crowd-pleasing, uncomplicated wine for jolly quaffing. Qualitatively it never reaches the heights that the truly great grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon can attain.
Gamay is the grape variety of Beaujolais. It is a cross between Pinot, as in Pinot Noir, and an ancient variety, Gouais Blanc (interestingly, genetic studies by DNA profiling have shown that this is the same parentage as Chardonnay). Well over 90% of the vines growing in Beaujolais are Gamay. Much of the wine produced is vinified by using a form of carbonic maveration, before the traditional alcoholic fermentation takes place. This results in wines that are low in tannin, with vivid, fruity flavours, reminiscent of Spangles, a kind of boiled sweet that I used to eat when I was young. Beaujolais is the perfect picnic wine, being fruity and gluggable.
Apart from Beaujolais, there are plantings of it all over Burgundy, where it goes into Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, and also what used to be called Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire and is now called Coteaux Bourguignons. Of course, the great red grape variety Burgundy is Pinot Noir, and in 1395 Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold), Duke of Burgundy, issued an Edict ordaining the uprooting of Gamay, this "mauvaiz plant", saying it was "inflame et deloyal" (despicable and disloyal).
The wine produced by Gamay, particularly as it ages, shares some characteristics with Pinot Noir, and with a decade or two of bottle age a taster might be deluded into thinking it was Pinot Noir, but without the verve, excitement or complexity of the finest red burgundy. I have personally tasted 20- and 30-year-old Beaujolais, which was beautiful, mellow and interesting, with a measure of the gaminess you meet in mature bottles of fine red burgundy.
And, finally, just a few words about Beaujolais Nouveau. It is fashionable to be rude about Beaujolais Nouveau these days. It has, unfortunately, been a victim of its own success. Good Beaujolais Nouveau, estate-bottled from a conscientious grower, is a wonderful drink. Why do you think it became so popular in the first place? With its rising popularity all sorts of substandard, actively unpleasant blends put together by unscrupulous merchants were peddled to the supermarkets and elsewhere. It was horrid stuff. Try a bottle from a good grower! But you'll have to wait till the third Thursday in November. Maybe this column will remind you nearer the time.